2010 Australian Open Women’s Preview

By Matthew Zemek, January 16th, 2010

The Belgians - both of them - are back. Dinara Safina’s not the top-ranked female tennis player in the world. Serena Williams hasn’t promised to shove a ball down the throat of a linesperson… yet. Intrigue and anticipation are coursing through Melbourne in the final 30 hours before the start of the new year’s first major tennis tournament.

My colleague Hiland has broken down the draws for the tournament, so this preview will focus on some of the themes and questions that will dominate the next two weeks Down Under.

* QUESTION: Is Victoria Azarenka fit and focused enough to make a big move?

It’s worth recalling that Azarenka has played Serena Williams (the defending champion and a four-time winner of this event) in each of the past two Australian Opens. In 2008, the Belorussian got drummed out of town in a decisive 6-3, 6-4 defeat.

Last year, however, was different… but with a cruel conclusion to a midday match played in this tournament’s broiling summer sunshine.

Azarenka took command in the first set and whipped Serena, 6-3. However, emergent and persistent dizziness - a combination of fatigue, nerves and susceptibility to the heat - forced Azarenka to retire from the match with Serena leading, 4-2, in the second set.

While some observers of women’s tennis - recalling Justine Henin’s retirement in the 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo - might have been inclined to think that Azarenka should have been able to “tough it out” against the best player on the WTA Tour, the fact of the matter was that Azarenka appeared to be on the verge of passing out when she toed the service line midway through the second set. The chemical cocktail inside that 19-year-old body produced enough anxiety and physiological distress to short-circuit her system.

As Azarenka prepares for another grueling experience in the Southern Hemisphere (she and her support staff are certainly hoping for night matches in Melbourne), it will be interesting to see how the 20-year-old, seeded seventh, carries her body and mind through the rigors of major tournament combat. Serena lurks as a potential quarterfinal opponent. If the two meet, perhaps a first-set victory won’t be followed by a physical failure this time around.

THEME: Non-majors versus majors: two different beasts

Yes, Kim Clijsters beat Justine Henin in the final of the Brisbane International event just over a week ago, but when it comes to major championships, Henin has claimed seven scalps to just two for her countrywoman and rival.

Clijsters was indeed a mentally liberated player at the U.S. Open last September in New York, but it needs to be noted that if Serena Williams had not been defaulted for her outburst of obscenities, Clijsters would have still had to win another point in that memorable semifinal. Some skeptics in the world of women’s tennis want to see Clijsters win the final point of a match against a player of Serena’s caliber. That line of thought might be unfair, but it exists, and it might have a small degree of psychological merit.

Clijsters’ physical freshness paid off for her in the United States, while the rest of the women’s field was laboring near the end of a long season. Now that the rest of the WTA has been able to take a break over the just-concluded offseason, Clijsters won’t be able to count on fitness as a foremost advantage. It’s Henin who, due to a comeback that was announced after Clijsters’ crowning victory in New York, will have more fuel left in the tank.

Ultimately, Clijsters needs to retain the mental toughness she found at the U.S. Open. If this tennis mom can continue to find serenity between the painted white lines, she just might be able to become the best Belgian in women’s tennis. If the two meet in the quarterfinals (Elena Dementieva will have something to say about that; the Russian should face Henin in what would be a jawdropping second-rounder), a lot of questions will be answered.

QUESTION: Are the Russians ready to stop being headcases?

Dementieva. Safina. Svetlana Kuznetsova. These three women own the strokes and the strength needed to play championship-level tennis. They’ve all reached the finals of majors, and Kuznetsova has managed to win on two occasions. But oh, how many premium prizes have eluded these ladies because of their inability to handle the pressure of big-time tennis?

If any of these three fearsome forces can ever find the right formula between the ears, an Australian Open title contender will instantly emerge.

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